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Kentucky Wesleyan did something unusual and gracious Saturday to recognize an institution that otherwise is its rival.
To honor Southern Indiana basketball student-athlete Jeron Lewis, who died January 14 after a fall during a game at Kentucky Wesleyan, fans, players and coaches wore Southern Indiana red clothing and staged several other gestures during the Panthers’ home men’s and women’s doubleheader two days later against Illinois-Springfield as a show of support for their Great Lakes Valley Conference colleague.
The normally purple-and-white-clad Panthers’ men’s and women’s teams wore red pregame shooting shirts with Lewis’ No. 40 emblazoned in blue on the back. In addition, Panthers men’s coach Todd Lee wore a red necktie and women’s coach Ron Williams wore a red sport coat.
Each of Kentucky Wesleyan’s women’s players was attired in red socks, as was men’s point guard Desmond Stephens. Most fans, hundreds of whom signed a card of condolence for the Lewis family and for the Southern Indiana community, wore red as well.
Kentucky Wesleyan’s cheerleaders, coaches and game administrators displayed red ribbons, and two of the arena’s four scoreboards simply read: “Jeron Lewis #40.”
Officials even announced that half of the traditional 50/50 pot would go to the Jeron Lewis Memorial Foundation. To top it off, the winner of the pot, Leah Deno, donated half of her winnings to the Lewis cause, providing a total of $723 to the foundation.
“The support shown for Jeron Lewis by our fans was very impressive,” Lee told the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer after Saturday’s game. “We’re still in the midst of what has been a tragic past couple of days, but it makes you feel very good about our community when you see that kind of support.”
“We’re going through a very tough time,” Loete said through tears into the microphone. “We wanted to come over here today and thank you for the support you have shown – everybody wearing red, on behalf of Jeron, his family and USI. It means so much.”
Loete received a standing ovation as she walked off the court.
GLVC Commissioner Jim Naumovich called what Kentucky Wesleyan did Saturday “one of the classiest, most profound expressions of support I’ve seen in my 16-year association with the conference.”
“These two institutions have had a long and often times intense rivalry in basketball for many years,” Naumovich said. “Jeron’s death and now this effort on the part of KWC to pay tribute to him has really been a moving experience for our entire league.”
With about four minutes left in the January 14 game between the Panthers and Southern Indiana, Lewis, a 21-year-old senior center, fell under the basket while competing for a rebound. He was treated on the court and rushed to Owensboro Medical Health Center, where he died just before 10 p.m.
Lewis was in his second season with the Eagles, averaging 12.8 points and eight rebounds. He is survived by his mother, sister, fiancée and infant son, who was born in December.
“They’re hurting over at USI,” Kentucky Wesleyan AD Gary Gallup said in the Messenger-Inquirer. “It’s a very difficult time for their community, and you try to do everything you can to help them in their time of need.”
At halftime, Southern Indiana softball team captain Sara Loete expressed her school’s appreciation of KWC's support.